11/30/2010 02:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Worried Should You Be About the Antibiotics In Your Meat?

When I heard that this summer the FDA called the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in meat animals a serious threat to public health, I needed to know if I should be worried about antibiotics when I eat meat. What should I be buying when it comes to meat and poultry?

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Here’s what I learned: By the time meat (beef, poultry, pork) and dairy products reach your plate, there are no antibiotics present. If a farmer treats an animal with antibiotics, the farmer can’t use its meat or milk until after a set waiting period, during which the antibiotics clear the animal’s system.

Concerns about treating animals with antibiotics—and hence the FDA’s recent recommendation for farmers raising animals for food to limit the amount of antibiotics they administer—have more to do with the consequences of farmers’ increased antibiotics use.

Using too many antibiotics is resulting in more antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals, says a 2008 review in The Annual Review of Public Health. “Antibiotic-resistant pathogens in food-producing animals can be transferred to people who handle or eat contaminated meat or milk,” says Siobhan DeLancey of the FDA. This means if someone is infected by an antibiotic-resistant pathogen, drug treatment will be less effective. Antibiotics can also get into soil and water, increasing our exposure and compromising their effectiveness.

Bottom line: Choosing meat and dairy labeled “USDA organic” or “certified humane” ensures you’re buying products raised without antibiotics (Find out what certified humane means here.) You might also see the terms “no antibiotics administered” or “raised without antibiotics,” but they’re not regulated. Lastly, follow good food-safety practices when handling meat.

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By Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D.
Brierley WrightBrierley's interest in nutrition and food come together in her position as nutrition editor at EatingWell. Brierley holds a master's degree in Nutrition Communication from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. A Registered Dietitian, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Vermont.

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